International Drive, once an impassible single-lane path full of mud bogs and ruts, is now a 10-minute trip through ongoing construction work that offers a glimpse of how the future highway will flow.
Where the pavement ends abruptly on International Drive beside a Carolina Forest elementary school, a smoothly packed, widened and raised dirt road lined by towering pine trees now makes for a clear shot all the way to S.C. 90 near Conway.
Before construction began three weeks ago, it would have been impossible for emergency vehicles to reach a wildfire in this dry timber area. Now a ladder truck could easily make its way across the road at a respectable 30 mph.
But there’s still one major roadblock county officials must clear before paving is expected to commence — a new legal challenge by environmentalists to halt all construction work.
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Round three of court proceedings begins Sept. 15 in Columbia at the Administrative Law Court, where Judge Ralph Anderson will hear the environmentalists’ pleas to issue a stay on construction.
The environmental groups filed a complaint on Sept. 1 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division to challenge a federal permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that is required to build the road near wetlands.
The complaint by the Coastal Conservation League and S.C. Wildlife Federation asks the court to set aside the federal permit, claiming the corps failed to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of the project or the impact of future development in the area.
The federal suit also reiterates the environmentalists’ position that bear crossings should be constructed underneath the roads.
“Members of the League and SCWF use and enjoy the waters, wetlands, bears, birds and other natural resources of Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, which will be degraded and/or destroyed if the project is allowed to proceed as planned,” the lawsuit said.
That road has been in bad shape for 30 years, it could swallow an Escalade in those big mud holes out there.
Johnny Vaught, Horry County councilman
Anderson has twice rejected the environmental groups’ attempts to block the federal permit. It has not been determined when Anderson will decide after next week’s hearing whether to issue a stay of construction, or when the new case filed in federal court will be heard.
Construction of the 5.6 mile four-lane highway, with a price tag now estimated at $16 million, has been on hold pending the outcome of the court fight.
When Horry County won its state court victory this summer and the permit was issued last month, officials began working around the clock on the site to tear down pine trees and brush from the right-of-way. Then the dirt road was leveled, graded and capped with several inches of rock-fill material.
A significant obstacle for construction was the deep ruts that appear to be man-made for the purpose of mud bogging — an off-road motor sport of driving vehicles through mud pits.
The pits were near wetlands in the Lewis Ocean Bays Heritage Preserve. The road shifts west to avoid that area.
“That road has been in bad shape for 30 years; it could swallow an Escalade in those big mud holes out there,” said Johnny Vaught, Horry County councilman.
$16 million cost of construction
Once completed, International Drive will showcase the beauty of the bays area and connect it with bike paths that stretch all the way to the beach, Vaught said.
“This will open the wildlife area up to people who have never experienced it,” Vaught said. “Oceans Bay will still be protected, and people will be able to ride their bikes right along side it. It’s going to be awesome.”
On the south end of the project, where environmentalists are worried the new road will encourage future development, Vaught said that may be unlikely.
“The north side will never change, because it’s in the preserve. The south side is not very developable because of all the wetlands — it’s not like we will have a city grow up on the south side of it,” Vaught said.